Hyper Light Drifter: Neon Souls…But Not Really

Hyper Light Drifter is a good game, but it is one that I think has a slight mis-labelling. Many call it a Souls/Souls-like, but honestly I think this label is one that should be used very loosely. While it has a few elements in common with Souls-like games, it has more to it that’s NOT common to that genre. What it is, however, is a fantastic action adventure game with a bit of Zelda influence and absolutely solid combat. Read on for more!

GENRE: Neon Synthwave Zelda with a *VERY SMALL HINT* of Souls-like

GET IT HERE: https://store.steampowered.com/app/257850/Hyper_Light_Drifter/

So, Hyper Light Drifter. As far as indie games go, this is one that always stood out to me due to its great presentation: A “Neon Pixel” artstyle as I called it, an incredible synthwave soundtrack, and most importantly, some incredible gameplay that despite its initial difficulty, can be approached by anyone due to its forgiving nature in terms of trying again on death. So let’s talk about why this is a game you shouldn’t let intimidate you just because of its “Souls-like” label.

It all begins with a strange dream.

Hyper Light Drifter begins with a strange dream, or perhaps it’s a vision? We see a civilization’s rise, followed by a devastating fall as giant monsters bring about an apocalypse…Followed by a strange dog who invokes the image of Egyptian god Anubis guiding our hero, the Drifter, to a strange object implied to be the power source of that civilization. But then, as we examine it…A monstrous shadow attacks the Drifter, and he wakes up from his dream.

Ever present. Ever watching. Awaiting the chance to bring about your demise.

The fascinating thing about Hyper Light Drifter is that its story is not told through any spoken dialogue. Times we do speak to people instead present us with imagery of what they talk about, no words shown. That said, those who want a full backstory can decipher the ingame language to get some extra lore, but you’ll have a rough idea of what’s going on through this game’s “Show, don’t tell” approach.

Much like The Legend of Zelda, your goal involves completing dungeons to collect a means to reach your ultimate goal, in this case the mysterious power source from the opening dream. Between you and it are four expansive areas you access from a central hub town. What’s fascinating is that three of these areas can be accessed in any order, with the fourth being accessible after the first three are beaten. The result is a much more open ended form of exploration that lets you choose where to go first and what challenges you want to tackle, after completing a brief tutorial dungeon that leads to the central hub.

So, let’s address the proverbial elephant in the room, the Souls-like label. This game has only a few very loose connections to the term Souls-like, such as its combat demanding some skill and observation, learning your enemies and how to react to them so you can fight back, as well as an emphasis on a renewable healing source you can pop in a bad spot to regain your health and a fighting chance. These are, in essence, the only true Souls-like elements of HLD. You have no currency that is lost on death. You don’t have a system that sends you back to the last checkpoint you visited when you die, as HLD instead makes you simply re-start the current room’s fight. This means HLD is less about making your way back to where you died, and more about simply learning and overcoming every challenge you face, one by one, with that challenge being fresh in your mind because you aren’t having to do a run-back to it, you’re already there after you respawn. It’s about trying each fight individually until it clicks, kind of like Hotline Miami except WAY more forgiving due to a health meter and the ability to heal mid fight. Now, let’s talk about the actual fighting.

Combat in Hyper Light Drifter is deceptively simple, lacking complexities and instead relying on a simple set of abilities and mastery of them

Hyper Light Drifter’s combat is very fast paced, and is a mixture of swordplay and gunplay, with one leading into the other almost seamlessly due to how it works. Your gun has a limited amount of energy that acts as its ammo supply, and when it’s out, it’s out, you aren’t firing anymore. However, every melee strike you land, be it against a foe or destroyable object like a random crate will recharge your gun energy, giving you more shots to fire. This means combat is all about knowing what to shoot, and what to slash to allow you to shoot more. That said, shooting does require you to stop moving and take aim, so you have to know when you have a safe opening to take your shots. Once it clicks though, you’ll find yourself happily using both gun and blade to bring foes down in style. Your sword has a fairly basic multi-hit combo with a particularly wide, hard hitting swing at the end, and doesn’t rely on any kind of stamina system, only the recovery period between combos. On the defensive side, you have your dash which turns you into a blur of light that zooms in the direction you choose, giving you brief invincibility when you use it. It’s as useful for simply getting out of harms way as it is dashing through attacks with good timing due to the distance it covers, and the ability to chain dashes together with skillful timing on your dash button presses. The mobility your dash offers you is nothing short of insane, as you can easily go from one spot to another in the blink of an eye with it, and even cross gaps and pitfalls since the dash isn’t affected by gravity.  Your other major defensive object are healing injections, which can be found in marked boxes throughout the world that respawn over time. You can carry up to three of these injections at any time, and use them any time you wish as long as you have a window for it since there is an actual healing animation of injecting yourself with sweet, life giving heals. You’ll also find additional guns as you explore, and can buy new abilities to further enhance yourself such as grenades, a charged slash, the ability to deflect projectiles back at enemies with a well timed sword attack, and more. The upgrades focus more on expanding your existing toolset, as opposed to giving you a lot of new items to play with, but with how great your basic toolset feels, this is fine.

What makes the exploration aspect of Hyper Light Drifter so rewarding is that instead of finding your new toys in a Zelda or Metroid like fashion (aside from guns, which you tend to find after each boss), you instead find a special currency hidden throughout the game: Gearbits. Gearbits can be spent in town to unlock the new abilities I mentioned prior, which means this is a game that is all about exploring to get new toys to play with, but you *choose* what you get for your efforts instead of the upgrade itself being the direct, immediate reward for your exploration. And Gearbits are hidden EVERYWHERE in this game. You’ll have to explore off the beaten path, find secret rooms, solve puzzles, overcome tougher optional fights and more if you want to find these shiny upgrade tokens to spend in town. Thankfully, you can fast travel between the game’s checkpoints, which link all the major areas and hub town, so the ability to spend your findings is never far off once you’ve gotten some Gearbits to exchange.

The gameplay loop of exploring to find Gearbits, then spending them in town to upgrade your equipment and unlock new abilities is a satisfying one. It’s like if Metroid had you pick your rewards for exploring.

As I mentioned before, the game is split into 4 major areas plus the hub town, but you’re given a fair bit of freedom with 3/4ths of the game world being open to you from the start. Each area has its own distinct theme, with a frozen mountain, a watery city, a corrupted forest, and eventually a desert wasteland with a sprawling underground complex being the locations you’ll visit. Each one has its own unique enemies, meaning you’ll be having to learn new tricks and tactics for each location you visit. They also each have their own environmental hazards and puzzles to worry about, which further enhances the distinct feel of each location. And the beauty is you don’t have to necessarily beat each area in one go. Feel like you just can’t make any progress in the mountains? Head to one of the other areas for a bit and try your luck there, coming back to the mountain later after you’ve scored some Gearbits to upgrade with. 

That said, expect to face death plenty of times in this game. But don’t let those deaths intimidate you. Again, Hyper Light Drifter is set up in a way that lets you quickly learn from your deaths, as dying does not send you back to the last checkpoint you used, and simply has you restart the fight you just died at. This means what killed you will always be fresh in your mind, helping you to learn and eventually get it right. And that’s one thing I really enjoy about this game: It’s a “Try until you get it right” type game, but one that is incredibly lenient due to allowing you to take multiple hits and heal during the combat instead of expecting you to be perfect. The key phrase here is “Get it right, not necessarily perfect.” If you can come out of the battle victorious, even if you had to heal 3 times, that’s still a win.

Exploration is frankly a treat due to how great the movement feels in Hyper Light Drifter. Your dash serves not only as a way to cross pits, but a way to get around quickly in general due to its timed button press mechanic that lets you skip the recovery phase of a dash and do another one immediately if timed proper, with the game having no limit to how many times you can chain dashes together if you have the skill to do so. Each area is vast and has a lot to see, find, and kill, but getting around is hardly a chore when you have such a great form of movement tech to get from point A to point B so quickly. And the exploration itself is plenty satisfying, as you’ll find out of the way secrets with a keen eye that leads to more Gearbits. On top of this, you’ll also need to find several pieces of a key for each area to open up the boss room, and possibly individual keys to open up locked areas, definitely adding to the Zelda-esque feel of exploration. It does exactly what a game like this should: Teach you to look everywhere, but not in a “Poke every wall” kind of way, and more of a “Be observant” kind of way. Each area also has its own story, told through the “picture dialogue” I mentioned earlier, which further individualizes each area and gives it its own flavor. Each location has its own villain to overcome, and they aren’t all part of some grand plot or anything, they just happen to be something in that area that impedes your progress and has to be dealt with, both for your sake, and the sake of the people who call that area home in some cases.

But frankly, none of this would be as good as it is without the amazing presentation, art, and sound that went into Hyper Light Drifter. Its sound effects are simple and to the point, fitting the action just fine. But the real stars here are the “Neon pixel art” as I call it, and the incredible synth soundtrack that accompanies you throughout the journey. The music often starts calm, but quickly builds up to something bigger as you explore each location, with climactic pieces for the big battles at the end of each area. Artist Disasterpeace has crafted a soundtrack that’s somehow both mellow and intense at the same time, always fitting the mood wherever you are in the game. A great example would be Cult of the Zealous, the “climax” song for the Mountain area, which starts out quiet, almost sorrowful, but turns into an intense battle piece befitting your struggle against the evil cult that rules this cold peak. Hyper Light Drifter would not work if its style was anything other than this, in my opinion. Its music truly makes the experience.

Song courtesy of the composer’s youtube channel: 


At the end of the day, if you’re the type who enjoys a Zelda-esque adventure that has some brutal yet satisfying combat, and enjoys the rewards exploration brings, whether it’s a key to get to the next boss, or simply a means to purchase an upgrade, this is absolutely a title you should be trying out. Hyper Light Drifter is an incredible neon synth fueled journey that is truly a joy to experience, even if the difficulty may seem intimidating at first. Learn from your mistakes, and come out triumphant. You’ll be glad you did.

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